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Fighting Windmills? Diaspora and Militarism in Post-Conflict Lanka

May 29, 2010 9:09:39 PM- transcurrents.com

by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants?

I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.”Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

—Part 1, Chapter VIII. Of the valourous Don Quixote’s success in the dreadful and never before imagined Adventure of the Windmill.

“Resisting the (terrorism) discourse is not an act of disloyalty, it is an act of political self-determination and it is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid another stupefying period of fear and violence like the Cold War. There is little doubt by now that terrorism discourse creates its own reality.

Joseba Zulaika in Terrorism: The Self-fulfilling Prophesy (2009: 2)

The weather gods have intervened to arrest the war gods in Lanka. Victory celebrations that were to feature military hardware, air power, and parades scheduled for V-Day on May 18, 2010 on Galle Face Green, while Colombo’s ordinary citizens were subject to yet another security lock-down to protect the Victors have been indefinitely postponed. Pre-monsoon rains and floods have displaced many poor and vulnerable families, living in “unauthorized shelters” (that the Urban Development Authority now headed by the valiant Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is given to knocking down), in Southern Sri Lanka. It is apparent that the funds and energy spent on victory celebrations, would be better spent on rehabilitation of flood victims (almost 500,000) and, one might add, the 50,000 war displaced Vanni IDPs who still remain in camps.

Since the war ended a year ago on May 19, 2009, there has not been a single “terrorist” attack in Sri Lanka, as Ravinath Aryasinghe, Lanka’s Ambassador to the European Union pointed out in Brussels recently. Yet the State’s (anti)terrorism discourse continues with rumors of the LTTE regrouping in South America. Ravinath noted that the war had moved with the Diaspora to the Western hemisphere; an overstatement that seems to be more in concert with the Colombo regime’s propensity to fight windmills a la the valiant Don Quixote, ever in search of villains on the horizon. Of course, a few ethnic entrepreneurs in the diaspora whose livelihood may depend on marketing “liberation” have announced a virtual state of Tamil Eelam in cyber space. This may not be the best way to keep up the pressure on the GoSL to treat its minorities right, since the declaration a Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) has been enormously helpful to those inclined to pursue post-conflict militarization and in-securitization in Colombo and the northeast.

Citizens of Lanka from all communities who were relieved and grateful to the armed forces for ending the war are increasingly confounded by the new (in) securitization and continued military footprint in Colombo, as well as, the permanent State of Emergency. The purchase of close circuit television (CCTV) cameras with training for service personnel (in Singapore), to secure the posh neighbourhoods of Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens through which the Presidential entourage passes daily, is one such example of extravagance in the interest of post-conflict (in)securitization aka. fighting windmills. Meanwhile, on the roads dug up for CCTV power lines, an unsuspecting pedestrian has fallen into a pot hole or two and broken her leg during the pre-monsoon down pours. Whose security is it, anyway?

Did the war end after all? The Diaspora and Amnesia

It is easy to forget that “terrorism” comes to an end somewhere, sometime, somehow, since the global ‘war on terror’ discourse is seamless, endless and has no exit strategy. As Harvard Political Scientist, Audrey Cronin, has noted in her book “How Terrorism Ends”: “Amid the fear following 9/11 and other recent terror attacks, it is easy to forget the most important fact about terrorist campaigns: they always come to an end–and often far more quickly than expected”. Before the war ended we had become used to the idea that it would go on for a long time. Various local and international conflict and peace experts in the business of predicting and sometimes rendering “protracted conflict” a self-fulfilling prophesy had said so. Extended exposure to violence on an of screen also tends to anesthetize the public and creates an endless plateau just like the non-existent term limits of Sri Lankan political leaders impervious to the fact that all good things must come to an end. But it seems that the post/conflict (in)securitization has a more material explanation: the Army Commander that helped win the war is locked up and the V-Day celebration would have been like Hamlet without the Prince!

Post/modernist pronouncements on the end of “grand narratives” seem rather misplaced these days since “terrorism” appears to have become a new international grand narrative of sorts, of course. The terrorism narrative like previous grand narratives of progress, development and the forward march of civilization that underwrote various forms and phases of imperialism has a political economy that benefits among others, the security knowledge industry, the arms trade, and the “terrorism” spin mill. Terrorism discourse mimics other grand narratives as antithesis or apocalypse. As Brezinski has noted in an article titled “Terrorized by the War on Terror” in the Washington Post, in March 2006: “Constant reference to a “war on terror” did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Support for President Bush in the 2004 elections was also mobilized in part by the notion that “a nation at war” does not change its commander in chief in midstream. The sense of a pervasive but otherwise imprecise danger was thus channeled in a politically expedient direction by the mobilizing appeal of being “at war.”

As the one year anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE approached the terrorism spin-mill worked overtime to equate the Tamil diaspora with’ terrorism’, rather than highlight the manner in which it sustains family and kin who survived the war back home. The constant repetition of stories about LTTE arms catches and arrests of members works to re-produce the terror discourse and legitimize militarization and the extra-ordinary security for the ruling family in post-conflict Colombo. While a few members of the Tamil diaspora have declared a Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), in exile and are engaged in anti-GoSL propaganda overseas the great majority has little interest in a Tamil cyber-nation-state. Several Tamil diaspora organization are actively opposed to TGTE, particularly, those who are conscious that ‘long distance nationalism’ may negatively affect the prospects of their kin in Lanka to live in peace and security.

It is well known, as with the Palestine/Israel conflict that Diasporas often tend to be far more intransigent and unwilling to compromise than those who remained at home, but the international context that enabled the LTTE become a powerful global terror network during the post-Cold war period of unfettered globalization, no longer exists. Tamil and Sinhala ultra-nationalism and extremism is most visible at this time from the respective diasporas, but there is also an emerging disconnect between the diaspora leadership and those in-country who wish to compromise, co-exist, and work with “other” communities to build back better. The declaration of a virtual state of Tamil Eelam merely serves to legitimize continued militarization in post/conflict Lanka, and the concomitant (in)securitization of minorities. It is not the best way to keep up the pressure on a regime that may suffer the Macbeth syndrome.

Different Strokes to Mark V-day

Before the intervention of the weather gods, the Sri Lankan State had called on its citizens and subjects to celebrate V-Day with pomp and ceremony, and ordered flags flown in all official buildings in the districts. The public of the Capital, particularly residents of snooty Colombo 7, where the Hambantota interlopers have been ironically on a tree-cutting, road- beautifying, charm-offensive, (consonant with the Urban Development Authority (UDA), being handed over to the Defense Ministry), had once again braced itself to be inconvenienced by ‘security’ arrangements for the ruling extended family. On the other hand, Tamil politicians and the TNA had called for a day of mourning, since the defeat of the LTTE represents to them the defeat of Tamil nationalism. Civil society meanwhile tried to be tempered and emphasized the need for balance, proportionality, dignity, and respect for the grief of those who lost kin when marking the first anniversary of the end of armed violence in Sri Lanka. At the same time, the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch saw fit to renew calls for accountability for war crimes to mark the first anniversary of the end of war in Lanka. Unfortunately, they may also have renewed the Macbeth complex of the establishment – fear of trees and the ghosts of murdered souls– (Out, out, damn spot and all that…), that seems to be at the root of Sri Lanka’s post-conflict militarism and insecurity.

What is to be done?

The best and only way to ensure that Lanka becomes the “wonder of Asia” and honor those who defeated terrorism is to ensure that there would not be a recurrence of violence. Rather than fighting windmills and appointing commissions to reveal lessons already known, the government’s best option would be to set things right on the ground in Lanka by ensuing speedy and dignified resettlement of the war displaced, securing minority rights, reparation, and reconciliation among the various ethno-religious communities. For this, fully implementing the 13 Amendment to the Constitution in the North and East would be a beginning. These should be the priority at this time, rather than constitutional changes to extend the term of the Presidency.

Unfortunately both the head of State and the Opposition seem to suffer the same malaise—an aversion to relinquish power and dislike for term limits on political power, to ensure that they move on and hand over to the younger generation, which may partly explain the propensity for youth uprisings and rebellions among youth from the different ethnic communities in post/colonial Lanka. The Buddhist principle that “all things change” must surely apply to politicians in the land of the peaceful one and those in power today must know that they are merely custodians of the land who need give way to others tomorrow? The United National Party must sort out its internal crisis speedily rather than dragging its feet and mimicking the government on reforms, in order to engage the UPFA government on the priorities for constitutional reform since most Presidents of Lanka have displayed an unseemly aversion to giving up power when their term runs out. But until Wickramasinghe passes on the torch to someone else, this may be a case of the pot to call the kettle black!

Finally, during the Tsunami disaster local civil society organizations worked ceaselessly, across ethno-religious identity lines to assist those who were displaced, and to help them resettle and reconstruct. The Sri Lanka diaspora also contributed enormously to relief and recovery. More than the government and international donors (the UN which consumes most of the funds raised for disaster victims again mourning about donor fatigue), similar efforts by civil society with the help of the Diaspora should be able to see the war-displaced resettle with dignity rather than living in miserable temporary huts once they have returned to their home villages, as is the case in much of Killinochchi and Mullaithivu. The scale of assistance necessary to support the conflict-displaced at this time is far smaller than on the first anniversary of the Tsunami disaster. Perhaps some of the energy and funds of the TGTE may be diverted to help the Vanni IDPs and returnees, and the Defense Ministry remove restrictions on access to the north — to prevent “terrorism” becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy again in Lanka?